The new Tory government has given every indication that the BBC can expect a scrap over the licence fee in the next few years. So it’s helpful for the corporation’s public service remit that this Christmas there is entertainment to suit a range of tastes. Sophisticated adult viewers have the dark, intense delights of Guy Pearce’s Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. At the other end of the spectrum is Mrs Brown’s Boys. Hovering between those two points is The Snail and the Whale, an animated adaptation of the 2003 book by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler. As with the duo’s best-known work, The Gruffalo, The Snail and the Whale is a children’s story with enough heart to be appreciated by grown-ups.
Or at least, that’s the theory. The story is simple enough, a meandering mainly rhyme narrated by Dame Diana Rigg. It’s a change of pace from the bloodletting and incest of Game of Thrones, where she has been seen most prominently in recent years. A sea snail, voiced by Sally Hawkins, lives on a rock in a harbour, pining to see the world. Dive-bombing seagulls thwart its attempts to board a ship via the anchor chain. At last, a friendly whale comes along, voiced by Rob Brydon. You might have thought Brydon’s extensive work advertising P&O Ferries was a quick cash-in, but now we know it has been a prolonged audition for this, proving the Welshman can handle a big maritime gig.
The snail crawls onto its tail and it’s taken on a ride through the ocean, meeting friendly dolphins, dodging fierce sharks and generally having a… large aquatic mammal of a time, until an unfortunate beaching incident imperils the voyage. I hope it is not too much of a spoiler to say that it does not end in tragedy.
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It is a watchable half hour, and perhaps little lads will enjoy the clarity of the story, but it feels slight even by the standard of animated Christmas TV for children. The graphics look cheap, without the richness of a Pixar or the texture and warmth of Scheffler’s original artwork. The best animation can convey a whole personality with a gesture or glance, even in a sea snail, but the snail and whale aren’t given much to work with.
I know this is not really the place to seek a rigorously defined universe, but surely a class of schoolchildren would be as concerned by the fact that a snail could write in English on a blackboard as by the distressed whale? The Snail and the Whale is fine as a soothing lunchtime option for people too little to linger over the brandy and stilton, but Finding Nemo will not be losing any sleep. Falling short of its source text, it neither swims nor entirely sinks.